Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Chappie

Mostly reviled by mainstream reviewers, Neill Blomkamp's third feature-length film turns out to be a charming picaresque story of a robot's coming-of-age. Set, like Blomkamp's District 9, in a near-future Johannesburg, the film starts out as a RoboCop homage, with an army of police robots tackling a crime wave in a by-the-numbers meathook urban dystopia. When a couple of hapless gangsters (Yo-Landi and Ninja, played by Die Antwoord rappers Yolandi and Ninja) fall foul of their terrifying boss, they have to come up with an impossibly huge amount of cash.  Their brilliantly stupid plan is to steal one of the robots and kidnap their designer, and use them to rob a bank. In a parallel story, the designer, Dev (Deon Wilson), has been attempting to develop a true AI; stymied by his boss, he has just stolen a damaged robot to experiment on when he's kidnapped by the gangsters.

So far, so B-movie, but the film kicks up a notch after the stolen robot, Chappie, is animated by Dev's AI program, rapidly develops from childhood through strutting rap gangster adolescence to adulthood, and tries to reconcile the opposing moral frameworks of his gangster parents and his creator. Yolandi and Ninja play Chappie's surrogate parents with broad but credible strokes; Hugh Jackman is a somewhat cartoonish embittered alpha male who plots to supplant Dev's robots with his own creation; Sigourney Weaver doesn't have enough to do as their boss. The story's mix of broad comedy, pathos and noisy violence is pretty uneven, doesn't always make sense (Yo-Landi and Ninja let Dev go after he's animated Chappie, even though he knows where they live), and reverts to B-movie cliche in the final showdown, a version of the three-way stand-off in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but with much bigger guns. But Blomkamp's direction is fluidly kinetic, there are some clever twists, and Chappie is a terrific CGI creation. He may lack a recognisable face, but the voicing and motion capture work of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, and a script that nicely charts his intellectual and emotional development, create a wonderfully engaging and sympathetic character who is the human heart of this patchwork fable.


Blogger RFYork said...

Your's is the second positive review I've read in the last couple of weeks. Gary Gibson also gave it a good review.

A couple of nights ago, I saw 2001:A Space Odyssey in the original 70mm print. I was astounded at how well it has stood the test of time. I saw it on opening day in 1968. It was roundly denigrated by most of the film critics who saw it at the time.

Of course, today it is considered a true classic and is often listed as one of the top 50 to 100 movies ever produced. I haven't seen Chappie yet, but I'm increasingly inclined to do so. Did you sense it might be of 2001 quality?

March 24, 2015 10:38 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

2001 is an unimpeachable 5 stars; a hugely original classic. And I agree - really worth seeing in the 70 mm print. The restored version is terrific.

Chappie is a respectable 3; a solid genre movie with a finely rendered character at its heart.

March 25, 2015 9:19 am  

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